The Annotated Asterios Polyp, Pt. 3

This brief chapter sketches out most (but not all) of the important biographical details about Asterios Polyp: he’s a paper architect, he has mainly been employed as a teacher, and he is the living half of identical twins. Just as importantly this chapter demonstrates how his worldview influences his perception, an issue addressed more directly at several later points. The layout, symbolism, and language choices actually tell us quite a bit more about Asterios than the narrative itself.

Pages 15-16: Two circular portraits of Asterios Polyp, the first in health, and the second in the rain. Blue dominates the first, and the second is shrouded in purple and yellow. The shape of the portrait suggests a coin. Asterios Polyp certainly has a coin-worthy profile. As Raymond Williams reminds us, the word character has roots in Greek(!) engraving practices:

Character came into English from fw caractère, F, character, L, from the Greek word for an engraving or impressing instrument: the rw is of sharpening, furrowing, engraving. This sense has persisted in the context of the letters of the alphabet or other graphic symbol; in the period C14-C16 it was widely used of any   impressed sign. The application to people developed, metaphorically, from this, with special reference to the    face: “by characters graven on thy brows” (Marlowe,  Tamburlaine, I, 1, ii); “a minde that suites with this thy    faire and outward character” (Twelfth Night, 1, ii).*

It might, then, be fair to say that by being represented on a coin, our protagonist gains a chiseled, immutable character. This is certainly not the case. Over the course of the novel Asterios Polyp changes his habits and his prejudices. But nonetheless Asterios views himself as a fixed constant. He believes in ironclad principles, maintains a steadfast presence, and sees pattern even in the face of catastrophe.

Not just anyone makes it onto a coin. Usually we see heads of state or other historic figures on coinage. Mazzucchelli (with help from Asterios himself) elevates Asterios to this lofty position. And we haven’t even addressed the expression “two sides of the same coin.” Most of all, though, Asterios is Janus here, as in the expressed “Janus-faced”.

Page 16: The “This” in “This is Asterios Polyp” reminds me of those Chris Ware, who is one of a fleet of other independent cartoonists exploring issues of nostalgia and memory.

“If it were possible for me to narrate this story, I’d begin here.” The “me” refers to Ignazio Polyp, Asterio’s dead brother. How can someone who never existed narrate a story? “Ignazio” isn’t sure either, which suggest to me that we can’t exactly call him the narrator. In one sense, this is the beginning of narration. The first chapter of the book unfolded nearly wordlessly: there wasn’t a single caption, and the only dialogue was previously recorded. Yet there is a master framer at work who visually narrates the story, and “Ignazio” indicates in this sentence that the story has already begun somewhere else, as in a few pages earlier.**

“Right now”—the year 2000.

Page 17: “teaching at a university in Ithaca” The university is probably Cornell, which has a longstanding and highly theoretical architecture program, but Ithaca is also a Greek island, famous in myth for being the home of Odysseus. It took Odysseus twenty years to get back; Asterios has been gone for seven.

“in fact, none of his designs had ever been built.” The tone here suggests that Asterios isn’t entirely happy being a paper architect; he’d like to bring his ideas into existence. However, this runs against his tendency to favor the perfect abstraction over messy reality.

Page 18: Asterios sits on a cubist throne overlooking basic shapes and Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. Realism was the watchword of most Greek sculpture, and for many the royal road to realism was geometry. Cubism broke with traditional understandings of representation by trying to do the eye one better and show all sides simultaneously. This was a fundamental break between objectivity and human perception. Asterios wears a laurel wreath here—in Greece it’s associated with the winners of competitions and with the god Apollo. Apollo usually stands for order, truth, and reason; his brother Dionysus brings disorder.

This page also includes our first peek at Hana.

Page 19: Modernism with a Human Face is a pretty funny joke: the Joseph-Albers-like image on the front is far from human.

Hey, Apollonian vs. Dionysian tendencies! That paid off quickly. Maybe the most famous treatment of these tropes is Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, which takes a critical stance on later Greek theater and Socratic philosophy for overemphasizing Apollonian tendencies and ignoring Dionysian. This early salvo of Nietzsche’s favored a balance of the two; the later Nietzsche attempts to jettison Apollo altogether.

Asterios Polyp clearly favors the Apollonian—does this make him imbalanced?

Page 20: Note the skewed perspective of his room as a boy. Asterios is reading books about twins: The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask. The chess set, the picture of Romulus and Remus, the illustration of TweedleDee and TweedleDum, and the double-helix bedsheets demonstrate his early obsession with his dead brother. Look out the window. There’s a plane in the air. We’ll see this plane a few more times in the book.

“an exasperated Ellis Island official had cut the family name in half, leaving only the first five letters”—what are the next five letters? Could it be something like Polypousos, or perhaps Polythemus, the Cyclops in the Odyssey?

A polyp is a sac and tentacles, basically. They reproduce asexually. Medical polyps are abnormal growths. These are not the most pleasant associations. Aglia Olio might be a reference to the dish aglio olio, spaghetti with clam sauce—let’s see if that pays off.

“caesarian section”—another Greco-roman reference, and the return of cutting/splitting as a theme.

Page 21: Ignazio could stand for Ignazio Danti, the mathematician, architect, and astronaut, although that linkage is not rock-solid.

“not again”—a rare thought balloon in the work. I would bet that “not again” refers to losing his complement or double. First he loses Ignazio, then he loses Hana, and now he’s lost the video copy of himself.

*See the entry on “Personality” in his Keywords

** Is Ignazio also possible reference to Ignatz mouse from Krazy Kat? Ignatz famously hurled bricks at Krazy Kat, which s/he took to be missives of love. Ignatz is obviously a poor communicator; is Ignazio?

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1 Response to “The Annotated Asterios Polyp, Pt. 3”


  1. 1 Stephen Frug September 14, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Thanks for doing these annotations — they’re terrific. I’m getting a lot out of them.


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